I sometimes wonder if it is fair to continuously compare indie titles to series from AAA studios. Does Chucklefish ever tire of hearing that Wargroove is “medieval Advance Wars?” Would the minds behind Bug Fables prefer if their game wasn’t constantly mentioned in the same breath as Paper Mario? These games are not just cheap clones of bigger titles – they conduct their own experiments and bring in fresh mechanics that build on the traditions that their inspirations began. Each game has its own unique identity distinct from the more “popular” title to which it is compared. Is continuing to draw those comparisons fair to the new ideas that indie games bring to the table?
Dark Deity has been a good reminder of why such comparisons are valuable. On the surface it looks very much like a Fire Emblem game in the style of Sacred Stones or Blazing Blade (titled in the US as simply “Fire Emblem”). It was this surface comparison which attracted me to the game. It’s been almost two years now since the last mainline entry in the Fire Emblem series and even then, Dark Deity is created to capture a very different era in the franchise’s history. I may have never heard of the game had a fellow Fire Emblem enthusiast not been drawn to the title and shared about it on Twitter precisely because of the similarities to that established series. The comparison was the hook to draw me in – once I was in, I could experience Dark Deity for the unique ideas it brings to the table.
So here I am, adventurers, to tell you that YES the comparisons to Fire Emblem are absolutely warranted and that if you’re a fan of particularly the GBA games, you’re going to want to put this game on your radar. But what I really want to do more than simply establishing their similarities is to focus on what gives Dark Deity its own mechanical identity and has made the first five chapters of the game a true pleasure to experience. We’ll start by discussing classes and abilities, then dive into advantage before finally exploring the weapon system.
Dark Deity tells the story of a country at war due to a king’s thirst for revenge against a neighboring kingdom. Your band of heroes begins with a few humble students at a military academy, conscripted into formal service before properly finishing their time at school. Each character in your party has one of a select number of classes. Like in any RPG your class is a significant determiner of other important aspects of a particular character. There are three tiers of class, with the second tier being reached at level 10 and the third tier reached at level 30. One interesting feature that sets Dark Deity apart right off is that characters above these levels who join you don’t necessarily have a “default class” – instead, you get to choose which of their upgraded class options you want the character to join with, at which point they are then scaled to the appropriate level based on when they are joining. This gives you more room to customize your party by selecting the specializations even of characters who are just joining you for the first time.
At tier one, each class has a unique ability that helps to give it a distinct identity. Some of these abilities are movement based, others are support skills for allies, while still others penalize enemies in some way. For example, the magician can phase an ally to the square on the opposite side of them, either moving them closer to or away from the battle as needed. The adept chains the enemy to a single spot so they can’t take a movement action on their turn. Healing, rather than being a “weapon” like in Fire Emblem, instead relies on the cleric’s class ability. These abilities help each class to feel distinct and add some options to the way you move around the battlefield. The second tier classes then add some unique flavor to these abilities through new skills, some of which may even alter the default ability of an existing class. For example, the tier one rogue ability Disarm allows you knock a weapon off of an enemy for one turn – at tier two, one of the classes gives you the ability to take the Disarm action from farther away. How advanced classes riff off of the basic abilities will likely factor into the decisions that you make about class changing.
I will say that while getting to customize new characters by class-changing them immediately is a neat concept, in practice it can be slightly intimidating or break up the action. During the fifth chapter of the game you temporarily have multiple characters level 10 or higher join the party at once – in that moment, you have to make the class decision for all of them before the battle can start. Because you’ve never used a character before, it can feel strange to be deciding what class they should be when you aren’t sure how they handle, so to speak. That said, one thing I appreciate about this feature is that when a new character joins, their stats actually adjust to suit the class you choose for them. In other words, getting a new character is a great time to get experimental with the classes you have available, whereas the RNG of characters you’ve raised yourself may have pushed them in a specific direction.
Now let’s talk about the advantage system. Longtime fans of Fire Emblem may remember the weapon triangle system that was once core to that series: sword beats axe, axe beats lance, and lance beats sword. Having the advantage over an enemy would give a flat bonus of some sort, generally a one point boost to damage and a ten point boost to accuracy. The enemy would also deal one less damage and have ten less accuracy, meaning that having an advantageous weapon could make a meaningful difference on the outcomes of an exchange. While this system has essentially been removed from more recent Fire Emblem titles, its DNA can still be felt in skills like the Lancebreaker or Swordbreaker which give significant boosts against the weapon that your tool once had a triangle advantage against back in the day.
In Dark Deity, damage doesn’t depend on how weapons compare to each other. Instead, you gain advantage based on how your weapon compares to the opponent’s armor. There are four armor types in the game: plate, chainmail, leathers, and rune cloaks. Your character’s armor type is based on their class and can change sometimes when promoting classes. Each weapon in the game interacts with the four types of armor in different ways, generally having four levels: a big advantage, a small advantage, a small disadvantage, and a big disadvantage. Swords, for example, easily cut through cloaks but are repelled by plate armor. Conversely, standard magic is great for blasting armored enemies but other magicians in their rune-cloaks have greater protection against it. Also unique to Dark Deity is a character stat called mastery which determines the degree to which your character takes advantage of their advantage. In other words, characters with high mastery benefit more from utilizing their weapon against enemies whose armor is vulnerable to it.
Advantage starts out relatively simple in the early game, but the relationships and possibilities get more complicated as you unlock new class tiers. Magicians, for example, get access to new armor types as they grow – I have one character who wears plate armor now instead of a rune cloak, significantly changing their relationship to advantage in the process. Characters can also change weapon types by class changing and thus change what types of enemies they can now wield advantage over in battle. And because advantage is determined by the relationship of weapon to armor, it’s a benefit that both units can take advantage of at the same time. If both units have a weapon type that is effective against the other’s armor, then both can benefit from their mastery and deal increased damage. It’s an extra layer to look out for in battle – not only are you thinking “does my weapon affect their armor?” (marked by a green upward arrow on the map when selecting units) by you also have to consider if their weapon is dangerous to your own armor.
Now let’s get to the weapon system, as our discussions of class and advantage have laid the groundwork to fully appreciate how the weapon system adds to your tactical decisions. Each character wields one weapon type (e.g. sword, spear, bow, etc.) that is determined by their class. Within that weapon type, each character also has different weapons that fall into four categories: power, finesse, focus, and balance. Power weapons prioritize damage, finesse weapons have a high critical hit rate, focus weapons are accurate, and balanced weapons are lightweight. How this manifests varies somewhat from weapon to weapon. The focus spear, called the vogue, has high attack power but is also very heavy and difficult to double attack with. Conversely, the focus weapon for swords is much lighter but doesn’t have all that much hitting power. This gives each weapon type a unique flavor for the four categories of weapon, and you’ll generally have your preferences of which weapons are often the most useful for a particular class.
Weapons in Dark Deity are upgraded using items called tier tokens. Tokens vary in potency from tier one to tier four and can be invested in a single weapon to give it a slight boost. Basic weapons need two tier one tokens to reach tier two, at which point the weapon gets a new name and can only be improved with tier two tokens. Because tokens are a relatively limited resource – you tend to get about two per map and then have to make choices about buying them alongside the other supplies you need – you’re not going to have enough of them to upgrade all four weapons for every character, so choosing whose weapon you want to improve and which one you care the most to invest in will make a big difference. As an example, for my rogue I quickly upgraded her balance weapon, the knife, into a dirk. This made her balance weapon do more damage than her power weapon, so I rarely ever have occasion to break out a different tool with that character. In other words, your choices can change the balance between the four weapons your character wields, making one a clear and obvious winner in most situations.
Characters who wield the same weapon type cannot trade weapons with one another, but characters keep their invested weapon tokens even if you change weapon types as part of a class change. For example, the adept class wields spears but upon promotion they can learn fire or lightning magic or even change their physical weapon to hammers. When my adept with a token already invested in his power category weapon changed into a magic user, his power spell still had the token. This was a pleasant realization as earlier in the game I had actually been making some token investments and even class change decisions based on whether or not characters would maintain the same weapon types. Knowing that you can freely invest tokens and experiment with classes without losing the resources you’ve invested in the characters is freeing and makes it much easier to make decisions without feeling like you’re locking yourself to a single path.
All of this works together to create a gameplay experience with a lot more long-term decision making than the traditional Fire Emblem game. How do you invest your weapon tokens to maximize the potential of your character? Which characters do you keep in the party and what classes do you change them into? What do you do with this brand new character who already needs a promotion? In a game where the weapons and armor available to your characters can significantly change your odds in battle, having a balanced team with multiple combinations of tools can mean the difference between a straightforward encounter and a dangerous one. Your choices have a lasting impact on your ability to form such a balanced team, so each decision point feels significant as you play.
For me, this has translated into an experience that feels a bit more challenging and moves a bit slower. There are more layers to consider in combat with the complexity of advantage in play so once you get beyond the first couple of chapters, positioning decisions have more dangerous consequences. Spending money at your base takes time because you want to invest your tokens properly and make sure you don’t run out of healing items. If you’re looking deeply at the new skills and the aptitude changes of each potential promotion when a new character joins or when an existing character changes classes, then promotions take you out of the action for a few minutes and add to the amount of time that a battle takes. Thankfully, the game also has pretty solid difficulty controls so if that all sounds intimidating to you but you still want to experience Dark Deity, you can alter the settings to your tastes. Newcomers can boost the experience points and gold for their own team while lowering the aptitude of enemies for a more welcoming first run of the game. Dark Deity also does not have permadeath like older Fire Emblem – there is a stat penalty for running out of HP so it isn’t as if there is no punishment for dying, but I imagine for new players that the prospect of losing one point of dexterity or defense is a much easier pill to swallow than losing your whole character.
So far I’m really enjoying what Dark Deity brings to the table and I am glad to see them experimenting with the basic concepts of a series that has meant so much to me over the years. I’m excited to continue exploring the game to see the impact of these mechanisms long term and to fully experience the story and characters. I really want to love Dark Deity not just because of the FE connection but because the game has lots of fun built-in features for challenge runs, including randomizers. This is a game I could see myself revisiting to experience those fun challenges if the core mechanics continue to appeal to me long-term. So if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to boot it up and get started on chapter six!